Scientists are working on an “exercise pill” so you never have to work out again

Possible one day: Gain, and no pain.
Possible one day: Gain, and no pain.
Image: Reuters/ Juan Carlos Ulate
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Imagine if, instead of sweating on the treadmill and forcing yourself through repetitive sit-ups, you could have the benefits of exercise without any of the effort. That scenario isn’t a ridiculous fantasy but a serious scientific goal, and researchers have recently published a major breakthrough: They have created a blueprint of the molecular reactions to exercise.

The findings, published in Cell Metabolism on Oct. 2, show that exercise causes 1,000 molecular changes in skeletal muscles. Dr. Nolan Hoffman, an author of the study and a research associate at the School of Molecular Bioscience, University of Sydney, says that the goal is to identify the most important changes, so that these can be replicated using drugs.

“We’ve created an exercise blueprint that lays the foundation for future treatments, and the end goal is to mimic the effects of exercise,” he tells Quartz from Sydney. “It’s long been thought that there were many signals elicited by exercise, but we were the first to create this map and we now know the complexity.”

Researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Copenhagen worked together on the study, which used a technique called mass spectrometry to study the protein changes in skeletal muscle after exercise.

Four healthy males had a muscle biopsy before exercise, then rode an exercise bicycle as hard as they could for 10 minutes, and finally gave a second sample of muscle. Their samples were shipped to Sydney, where they were examined.

“We were definitely very thankful to these individuals, who not only gave their muscle samples to science but also before and after such a high intensity bout of exercise,” says Hoffman.

The blueprint is incredibly complicated, and because no single drug could safely deliver 1,000 effects, the researchers will have to identify the most significant biological changes before they can start to create a drug. They plan to create an exercise blueprint for diseased individuals, to identify the important differences from healthy people.

It took three years to create the exercise blueprint, and it will be many more before a pill could conceivably be available—“at least a decade,” says Hoffman. But the researchers are “actively working on” that end goal, he says.

An exercise drug could have major benefits for the elderly, as well as people who have obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Though it sounds like a gift to the lazy, such a treatment could transform the lives of many who cannot exercise. “I think we can make major strides in medicine,” says Hoffman.